As sport the world over remains in unprecedented limbo, the best laid plans of strength and conditioning coaches lie in tatters, leaving the specialists working overtime to keep their stars in peak physical shape. No easy feat when start dates for the resumption of play remain a mystery for so many.
Things are no different for the Northern Ireland netball squad who, as it stands, are still planning as if they’ll be back in action come August.
Entrusted with keeping the players in peak condition despite the lockdown is the team’s strength and conditioning coach Mike Bentley, a Zimbabwe native who took up the role only weeks before all this began.
“It’s a challenge,” Bentley admitted. “We’re still aiming to peak for competitions but with everything that’s going on, it’s difficult to know.
“With all the other coaches we’re all singing off the same hymn sheet that the competitions are the goals. We’re trying to carry on and make the best of it. It’s the same for a lot of sports.
“At the minute, we still have to have the competition focus, working towards August. Whether that happens we don’t know but we’re still planning for that with the senior squad — focusing on running, sprint work, endurance work but keeping them strong too.
“Some of the girls are fortunate enough to have barbells and weights and stuff so we can do some strength work. Some don’t so we have to think outside of the box a bit there to see what we can do to achieve the same goals. If we get to play in August, we want them in the best condition they can be.”
With some of the squad having to do more than stay at home in the battle against Covid-19, there are other challenges too.
“We do have front-line workers in our squad, it has affected their prep,” added Bentley, who also holds a similar position working with Royal Belfast Academical Institution. “I try and work around their workload with the priority for them being out there on the front-line in their jobs with the NHS or other important industries.
“I am fortunate in that the athletes are very committed to their training and the goals we have set for them. The training programme is a nice release for them from the everyday stresses of working on the front-line or even being in isolation at home.
“Coronavirus has impacted everyone in different ways, so as much as we are trying to achieve the goals we have set for us as a group, at times like this the health and wellbeing of our athletes — both mentally and physically — outweighs the end goals.
“Hopefully when we get back into the gym and on the court we will have a fully fit and healthy squad that is raring to go.”
At that point, Bentley’s job will finally resemble something like he envisaged when he first applied for it back in January.
Born in Zimbabwe, Bentley’s mother and father came to Ireland to farm, settling in Dundalk. He joined them when his father became ill, turning out for Dundalk Rugby Club in his spare time. While cricket had been his first love — and he’d even tried his hand at some netball in school — the sport offered a quick way to become accustomed to his new surroundings.
His play caught the attention of Dan Soper, now Ulster Rugby’s skills coach, then in charge of Banbridge.
While Bentley, who studied sports management, was working as a personal trainer, he yearned to be involved with athletes. Starting working with the rugby players at RBAI, where Soper was also in charge before departing for Kingspan in 2018, he says to work with internationals is a dream come true.
“I always wanted to play international sport. It never happened for me but the chance to work with international athletes is the next best thing,”